Why rightwing populism endures
Is rightwing populism receding in the world? Several developments suggest the phenomenon that swept the world in the past decade may be in retreat. Jair Bolsonaro’s election defeat in Brazil, Boris Johnson’s humiliating ouster in UK and Marine le Pen’s defeat in France all exemplify this. It is also evidenced by the setback faced by Donald Trump, as many candidates endorsed by him failed to get elected in the recent US mid-term Congressional elections. This did not, however, dissuade him from announcing he would seek the Republican party’s nomination to run for president in 2024. Most western analysts saw his position weaken in the party after its candidates lost a number of winnable seats in battleground states and the Democratic party retained control of the Senate. The Economist commented in its Leader that, “The most important result of the 2022 midterms, for America and for the West, is that Mr. Trump and his way of doing politics came out of them diminished.”
In Brazil, Bolsonaro, another far-right populist leader, lost the run-off presidential vote in October. But as diehard supporters of such demagogues are wont to do, they refused to accept the results of the poll with thousands taking to the streets in protest. Only after the military, in a report prepared by the defense ministry, ruled out ballot fraud, protests were called off. The defeat of Bolsonaro dubbed as ‘Trump of the tropics’, was widely seen as a blow to the far-right.
Even before these developments, several western Think Tanks, which track rightwing populist movements and leaders, had begun to conclude that the global wave of populism had peaked and the tide was turning against rightwing populist leaders. Some construed the loss of power by several populist figures as presaging an increasing rejection by the public of the ideas and narratives they espoused. But is that really the case? Has the electoral defeat of such leaders ended the appeal of their brand of politics or significantly weakened populist sentiment? The evidence points in a different direction.
The rightwing brand of populist politics also persists because the economic and social conditions that gave rise to it remain unchanged.
For a start, recent setbacks faced by populist leaders in Brazil and the US haven’t left these countries less polarized, politically and culturally. In Brazil’s presidential election, the vote was extremely close with Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva winning 50.9 percent of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent. The wafer-thin margin with Bolsonaro securing just under half the vote indicates that rightwing populism still retains a strong hold over voters. Moreover, in elections for the Brazilian parliament and state governors earlier in October, candidates supported by Bolsonaro and his party made a strong showing. In the upper house, it is the biggest party while in the Lower House too it made significant gains to secure a dominant position. Several governors who were elected were also Bolsonaro allies.
Turning now to the US mid-terms it is true that many of those who Trump supported lost the election in toss-up states. Some of them were high profile politicians. Even so, 133 Republicans elected to Congress, that is almost half of the party’s winning congressional candidates, were ‘deniers’, those who refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, many of them far-right in their beliefs. Also, according to the Brookings Institution, over 224 election deniers or 66 percent won races to the House, Senate and state legislatures. This shows continuing electoral support for conservative rightwing views. While the entire Republican party has moved to the Right influenced by Trump’s Make America Great Movement (MAGA), almost 20 percent of the party’s House membership are part of the Freedom Caucus who represent the far-right.
While populist leaders and politicians have undoubtedly faced election reversals, the appeal of rightwing populist ideas endures. Many of these beliefs are deeply rooted in society which populist leaders tap into and magnify. Although populism has different expressions across the world, some core ideas are common to most – xenophobic nationalism, an authoritarian, illiberal outlook, anti-establishment, anti-elite stance, notions of racial or religious superiority, anti-immigration view and disregard for conventional norms. Usually, ideas that exist on the fringe of society are mainstreamed by populist leaders.
The rightwing brand of populist politics also persists because the economic and social conditions that gave rise to it remain unchanged. Economic insecurity and cost-of-living crises are key underlying factors that enable populist demagogues to shape and mobilize public sentiment. Populist thinking usually gains in strength from contextual factors such as public disenchantment with traditional political parties and the establishment over their failure to meet expectations especially in times of disruption caused by an economic slowdown and uneven impact of ‘elitist’ globalization. Usually, there is already low trust in political institutions seen as unresponsive to public needs. This is exploited by populist demagogues who cast this, as the ‘deep state’s’ anti-people conduct.
Divisive and polarizing politics and the ideas that right wing populist leaders espouse often reshape the political environment and become more entrenched in society. That outlasts electoral setbacks and loss of public office by populist politicians. Therefore, any conclusion that rightwing populism is on its way out is mistaken. This brand of populism may be around much longer and remain a challenge for democracies across the world.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha